Devour Details About Five Local Culinary Artists
Our area restaurant scene is full of multicultural cuisine, fusion dishes and stellar teams made up of eclectic, passionate people. Step behind the scenes and into the kitchens to get to know the humble and hardworking leaders responsible for some of the most sought after food in the Fox Cities.
Executive Chef, Lost Key Tap in Wrightstown
Chef Curt Lambert entered the restaurant industry unintentionally, and didn’t naturally have an elevated palette—at least at five years old. In fact, the first concoction in his childhood kitchen is an admittedly acquired taste.
“I remember wanting a bowl of cereal but there was no milk in the house, so I used Kool-Aid,” he laughs. “It was the green stuff and it was Frosted Flakes. Sugar on top of sugar.”
Fast forward to graduating from Green Bay Southwest High School and moving on to the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and things have changed considerably about the way he pairs flavors, but his creativity and fun nature has not.
Lambert currently calls the recently opened (March 2022) Lost Key Tap in Wrightstown home, after a resume including local foodie favorites Rye, Bleu and Chives. It’s been a whirlwind year for the restaurant with an elevated, chef-driven menu, but Lambert’s grounded philosophy on cooking and the atmosphere he wants to see in the kitchen has made it an easy, albeit busy, transition.
“I think a lot of stars aligned for us,” owner Daniel Zapata says. “We didn’t have time to overthink. We set a menu, got staff and just kept moving forward. Wrightstown is a really cool small community and I think what we’re doing here would surprise a lot of people between the drinks and the atmosphere to the food.”
“‘Keep it simple, make it good,’” Lambert adds. “Less is more. A lot of times, you know, it’s a rabbit hole, so the more you put into it, the more things you put into a dish, the further down you go. There’s no way out.”
Self-described as a “pain in the ass” (with a smile), Lambert realizes creating delicious food and serving customers a well-rounded experience is serious, but believes time in the kitchen should be the opposite: there’s a focus on having fun and creating dishes that naturally evolve based on the products he’s using.
“I was telling one of my friends down South that I had a bad day, and he told me, ‘You don’t tell the food, the food tells you, you just got to listen.’ So I go with that philosophy. I let it dictate where it wants to go. We use high quality ingredients so it’s easier to listen to the protein and the food when you know that. It’s the best of the best situation.
“Sometimes it happens with new dishes and plating. You have this vision in your head and suddenly it turns. We have a good team in the back and I encourage them to tell me that if it needs something, make it happen. My ego can’t get in the way.”
Favorite dish to cook + eat: “I love cooking fish. Fish is very versatile. You can do so many things with it. As far as what I eat, if I go out to eat dinner, I eat steak.”
Most popular at Lost Key Tap: Grilled Salmon with dill cream sauce, roasted rosemary parmesan potatoes, seasonal vegetable
Macadamia Nut Crusted Walleye with roasted golden potatoes, seasonal vegetable, beurre blanc
Pastrami Rueben with house made pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, 1000 island dressing, rye bread
Executive Chef + Executive Pastry Chef, Carmella’s an Italian Bistro and SAP in Appleton
A lover of live music and biking, Chef Kari Mueller has a lot of hobbies, but there’s one she can’t seem to shake regardless of her day job. When she isn’t cooking at two of the most popular restaurants in Appleton, she’s at home… doing the same thing for her husband and two children.
“I go right to cooking at home, I don’t even change my clothes. It’s all from-scratch. The kids are lucky,” she laughs. “I must truly love it.”
A graduate of the FVTC’s culinary and apprenticeship program, she spent much of her education doing hands-on work in the kitchen of an area country club. Then came a stint at a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago before returning to the area and diving into the local food scene.
Mueller currently splits her time between Carmella’s an Italian Bistro and its sister restaurant SAP as Executive Chef/Pastry Chef at each.
Mueller focuses on natural flavors and pairings, and uses locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible. Haen Meats in Kaukauna and Lamers Dairy in Appleton and various cheesemakers in Wisconsin are among their carefully selected partners.
“We really pride ourselves on fresh ingredients, and anything I can possibly do from scratch, I do,” she says. “I like to be unique and do things other people aren’t doing. I like color: very colorful sauces and colorful bakery.
“In both of these kitchens, if it’s not perfect, it doesn’t leave the kitchen. Everything’s got to be consistent because we have a lot of regulars in both restaurants.”
Mueller considers herself a “modern chef,” using traditional foods but elevating it in flavors and plating.
“We have a lot of artists in both kitchens and that’s important too—you eat with your eyes first.”
The Carmella’s team’s creative streaks include outside-of-the-box items like Fresh Mozzarella Gelato and Savory Tomato Bread Pudding.
In-house smoked salmon for SAP’s Eggs Benedicts and appetizers bring the favorites to another level of flavor, while homemade tortillas and other little touches accentuate Mueller going the extra mile in creating the best experience for guests. Not only in front-of-house, but in the back.
“I like to joke around because you have to have fun at work, right? Burnout is so real that you have to have that balance. We’re a family and yes, we fight,” she laughs. “But we get over it in a few minutes—we have a common goal at the end of the day.”
The objective includes putting out consistent staples at the Italian and brunch mainstays, but also adding twists and changing up offerings seasonally.
“We have our staples, Larry’s (founder) recipes, and those will always be on the menu,” Mueller assures. “But we like to change it up too. I bake for every holiday.
“I want to thank everyone for the support because we can’t do it without them,” she says. “We can’t do it without people consistently coming through our doors. There’s a lot of competition, but it makes us better, it makes us work harder. We love the support from the community.”
Favorite dish to cook + eat: “Coq Au Vin is my favorite thing to eat. It’s French. You have to have the bone-in chicken. You can use thighs or a whole chicken, and it’s slow roasted then that’s deglazed with red wine.”
Most popular at Carmella’s: Saltimbocca (chicken breast, fontina, spinach, prosciutto, marsala) and Scallops with Wild Mushroom Risotto.
Most popular at SAP: Crispy Chicken Sandwich with Honey Sriracha Glaze and Eggs Benedicts.
Owner + Head Chef, Mark’s East Side
Chef Alex Shea has been a part of Mark’s East Side in Appleton since 2015, but has been the owner of the Fox Cities institution since January of 2021.
“Mark was a great employer and with taking over there are big shoes to fill. When I took over as the full owner we had zero turnover. I mean, everyone stayed. It’s just been great and they’re definitely family to me,” he says. “I’m blessed.”
He enjoys all aspects of his dual leadership roles as owner and head chef, as long as it keeps him busy.
“People describe me as extra,” he says. “I’m high energy, over the top. I bring something to the party. I love when the music is loud and we’re just having fun. But when a ticket comes in, it’s like ‘I got this, you got that, everything comes together. It’s a sense of calmness, which is funny because it’s so high energy.”
Although he credits great instructors at the technical college, Shea, who comes from a traditional French cookery background, also says “most everything” he learned happened hands-on.
“I started when I was 14 years old, started as a dishwasher and then, you know, worked my way up: prep, cook, sous chef and then head chef,” he says. “That’s the hands-on part, getting in every department that a restaurant has.
“It’s not for everyone. And if you don’t enjoy it, you don’t feel like you’re making a difference or it’s not rewarding to you at the end of the day, man, you gotta find something else to do. It’s rewarding to me. It’s definitely like a family as far as customers go. We’re with them on the best days of their lives and the worst days of their lives and everything in between.”
What has grown into a passion began as simply functioning as the eldest brother of five kids.
“I guess it started with mac and cheese out of the box and helping mom bake cookies—doing that kind of stuff,” he remembers. “I was probably 16 years old when I kind of realized that it’s what I wanted to do… I felt like a connection to my coworkers in the restaurant. It was a sense of belonging.”
It’s the same sense Shea wants Mark’s East Side customers to experience, enough for them to continue to frequent the restaurant again and again—by delivering excellent service and food.
“Part of our mission statement is to create “be back customers” by meeting or exceeding our guests expectations,” he says. “We don’t want it to be good. We want it to be better. Consistency is huge.
“So if a guest comes in on a Tuesday night versus a Saturday night versus whatever and they order the pan seared scallops with the twice baked potato, it better be what they expect.”
Favorite dish to eat: “My favorite thing to eat is Ribeye a la Oscar… a nice fatty ribeye, charred on the outside. They gotta be prepared correctly so it’s nice and crispy on the outside. Real crab meat and hollandaise, man, I could put hollandaise on anything.”
Most popular at Mark’s East Side: “We’re known for our hand cut steaks and fresh seafood, and the German fare is definitely popular—the classics like wienerschnitzel. Friday it’s the fish fry.”
Owner, Sai Ram Indian Cuisine in Appleton
Priya Sivakumar doesn’t think of owning Sai Ram Indian Cuisine or working in the culinary world as a job, but as a passion passed down from generation to generation.
“(It’s) our family tradition,” she says. “We are part of a big joint family where my grandparents are well known for feasts and they used to cook all the time for friends and relatives. So cooking is not a big task for us.”
Sivakumar’s expertise in cooking traditional Indian food, as well as experience in cooking for parties and small gatherings, catapulted her decision to purchase Sai Ram seven years ago, making it a family-run restaurant once again—only better.
“Our skills improved the quality of food,” she says. “We don’t use any frozen meats, we use premium and organic meats.”
First memory of cooking/being in the kitchen: After our marriage In 2005, I made RiceKheer for (my husband) Siva.
Philosophy in terms of cooking and the food at Sai Ram: Making (food) fresh is our philosophy. Even though Indian food takes time, we still make the food based on the order and we don’t use any ready mix.
How would you describe yourself as a chef? I have 17 years of daily cooking experience at home, which makes me a skilled chef who can cook and guide. My skills really help to improve the quality and taste of the existing food (at Sai Ram). (We also) introduced some of our home recipes at the restaurant like Chilli Gobi, Chicken Chennai, etc.
Favorite dish to cook + eat: No question… it’s always Chicken Makhani and Chicken Biriyani.
Most popular at Sai Ram: Chicken Makhani (Butter Chicken), Tikka Masala, Chicken Chennai, Navratan Koorma, Shahi Paneer.
Certified Executive Chef, Ground Round at River’s Edge in Oshkosh
Local foodies can thank a typically thankless first job and a bit of disdain for the opportunity to experience food from Chef Matt Winters.
“I started out in the dish pit—pots and pans—but I hated washing dishes!” he says. “I told myself I’d work my way up. I started helping the cooks. I started prepping for them when they took cigarette breaks. Then I just kind of fell in love with cooking.
“I toyed around with a few things, you know, through my teens. But I just kept coming back to cooking. It clicked.”
A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Winters followed that love to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City.
His career has spanned many states and focused largely in hotels, not by happenstance.
“It’s been an intentional choice because I like variety, I like to do different things,” he says. “Full service hotels that have multiple restaurants, you know banquets, catering… it gives me the opportunity to do a little bit of everything.”
He now calls the Ground Round at River’s Edge, a part of the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel & Convention Center in Oshkosh home, but he’s doing the opposite of getting comfortable.
Winters is upping the kitchen’s game, transforming the restaurant’s menu and going the extra mile in terms of how meals are constructed in the back.
“Change is good,” he says. “There are growing pains but I tell my guys they can’t get hung up on one mistake because they’ll learn more from that than being perfect. It’s how you address it, how you react.”
Some of the initial changes include from-scratch sauces and soups, and a different philosophy on greens.
“Most restaurants are using just chopped lettuces and stuff out of a bag,” he explains. “But we’re not going to do that. So we’ve switched everything to hand-torn artisanal greens. They have more flavor and we’re able to ensure the quality and freshness.
Winters is a Certified Executive Chef, one of just a few in the state, through the American Culinary Federation, recognized throughout the industry as the standard for excellence in professional skills and knowledge. However, he’s still learning and growing with his team, for which he relies.
“I’m nothing without my team,’ he says. “We have a very, very good and very solid group. They’re good people, they’re dedicated and they work hard.
“I love food. I love people,” he says. “When you sit down and break bread with somebody, that’s how you can connect the best. It’s an experience, it’s not just eating food, right?”
Favorite dish to cook + eat: “My favorite (to cook) is whatever I’m making at the time. Favorite dish is anything I’m not cooking! I’m probably the easiest guest you’re ever going to have, but I’m also very skeptical.”
Most popular at Ground Round at River’s Edge: “The Mashed Potato Martini is going over really well. It’s loaded full of mashed potatoes covered with gravy and shredded cheddar cheese, Applewood smoked bacon bits and a little bit of chopped scallion. Then we take the end of the scallion and we turn it into a blossom. It looks like a martini.”